Schools upgrade wireless LANs for iPad-in-the-classroom programs

School districts that adopt iPad-in-the-classroom programs must upgrade their wireless LAN technology in order to support the new mobile devices.

Bring your own device and iPad-in-the-classroom programs are pushing public school systems to invest in wireless LAN technology upgrades.

At Holly Area Schools, a seven-school district in Holly, Mich., director of technology Matt Mello upgraded his wireless LAN about a year ago as mobile devices started to proliferate on the network. It first became clear during a trial of Apple MacBooks that the district's legacy Cisco Systems network of independent access points wasn't up to the task of handling mobility, so Mello moved the district onto an Aerohive Networks wireless LAN. IPads in the classroom only proved that need even further.

"We had an iPad in our hands for a few days, and we just knew it was going to be a game-changer for education," Mello said. "We knew we had a compelling need to go mobile more seriously and paint the entire school district, not just a few schools.

Now the Holly Area School District has about 130 iPads with plans to add another 200 in the fall.

Cost, simplicity key to supporting iPad-in-the-classroom programs

Mello opted for Aerohive's controllerless architecture because it offered simplicity and cost control, both crucial for school-based mobility programs. Aerohive distributes the controller functionality of its architecture among its wireless LAN access points, eliminating the need for a physical controller appliance. "I had a quote of $180,000 to do it with Cisco. Aerohive cost [about] $40,000 less," he said.

"I needed a high degree of flexibility, something that would allow me to assign SSIDs easily. We have one for students, one for staff and one for guests. We had to be able to quickly provision an access point anywhere as long as I have the switch configured for the right VLAN. I was also looking for good Active Directory integration. A lot of the policy and management of devices is done on the Active Directory side."

With an iPad-in-the-classroom program, the ability to deal with shifting patterns of usage was also critical to Mello. Users began to quickly realize they don't have to be fixed in labs to use their devices, so they begin using new spaces in the facility. To deal with this, Mello bought 10 extra access points that he could provision on the fly depending on needs.

“You have to adjust and provision access points based on increases in those areas. That flexibility is really important. I never envisioned having 180 laptops fired up at once in a single area," he said.

Now in the district's high school meeting room, known as a Kiva, students and staff gather for large functions and the sudden density of wireless users—whether they’re using iPads or laptops—can overwhelm the network.

"We were getting oversubscription alerts and complaints that users can't log in. [At one point] I saw that we had 32 laptops connected to one access point. I had my staff pop up the ceiling grid and plug in another Aerohive 320N access point,” Mello said.

Pender County Schools, a 16-school district in North Carolina, is also scaling out its iPad-in-the-classroom program, said CTO Landon Scism. He currently supports 250 iPads and 500 iPod touches. The number of iPads in the system will double next year, he said.

Scism also chose Aerohive to replace two incumbent vendors, primarily because its technology was easier to administer and manage.

"To create a VLAN in most other vendors’ software may take 20 to 25 steps," Scism said. "It's not intuitive. With Aerohive, it takes just five or six steps to change a VLAN. And the questions the systems asks of you are intuitive. To program it, I can use an average technician as opposed to an engineer.

Mobile device management for iPad-in-the-classroom program

As his fleet of iPads and iPod touches grow, Scism is evaluating mobile device management software. His staff has relied on direct, hands-on management of the Apple devices thus far. 

"We have canned scripts set up, to bring [iPads] in, plug them into a machine, and it takes 40 seconds to set it up. It's all automated. All you have to do it plug it into a Mac and synch to it," Scism said.

But he needs to adopt a centralized device management approach soon.

"We're looking at several vendors," he said. "With 500 devices it's not that big a deal because Apple devices don’t' seem to have the problems other devices we've bought have had. But when you're approaching 1,000 units you need some kind of software to manage what's going on. I don't have the staff to put a technician at every school."

With a mobile device management product, Scism will be able to push apps to every iPad in the classroom. He'll be able to reset devices remotely. He said he's evaluated four vendors as of now.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor.

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